Summer Honors Program

SHP – Summer Honors Program

Everything (and everyone) is awesome at SHP

There is a two week period in the month of June when the energy shifts in the town of Holdrege. It has nothing to do with the familiar allure of summer like swimming at the public pool, passing by a lemonade stand, or grabbing a Dilly Bar at the Dairy Queen. This particular energy comes from something rooted in this region’s history and it takes the form of an assembly of high school kids that flock to a well-curated program that champions excellence, creativity, and empowerment.

Summer Honors Program It is the Summer Honors Program and it has been challenging and encouraging local youth for decades.

Supported and sponsored by the local Educational Service Unit #11 based in Holdrege, SHP was created in 1978 by Gifted Education Director Cindy (Andersen) Claassen and ESU #11 Director Rod Smith. Her idea of implementing a summer curriculum that highlighted gifted students was based upon the concept of existing summer camps offered to kids who excelled in a certain area of interest. If you were looking for a basketball camp the options have often been plentiful. But what about students looking for a summer program focusing on subjects such as statistics, medicine, and creative writing?

Fun and learning rolled into one

With an initial four year grant from the Nebraska Department of Education, SHP began and flourished by offering gifted students an opportunity to spend two weeks during the summer studying a particular subject. The first classes offered were Art, Science (Astronomy), Math, Medical Science, Photojournalism, Social Sciences, Anthropology, and Writing. According to the book A Journey to the Past: A History of the Summer Honors Program 1978-2000, the evening activities during the inaugural year included “four nights of disco dancing and a Swedish night.”

Summer Honors Program Clearly these gifted kids knew how to study and party at the same time. I assume that tradition continues to ring true. Whenever you allow a kid to be surrounded by peers of the same exceptional caliber, good times will ensue.

Many things have changed since that first year. The concept has continued to excel beyond expectations. What started as an experimental concept to challenge 40 gifted students in eight specified classes has blossomed into a program now in its 38th year with 125 students in 12 courses taught by instructors from as far away as Algrad, Norway.

Perhaps that is why the ESU #11 Summer Honors Program was recognized by the International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development as one of the top gifted programs for rural students in the nation.

Rural region showcases young talent

The interesting thing about SHP is that it is exceptional for reasons far beyond its gifted attendees. Not only is it an opportunity for students to identify an area in which they excel, but it also allows a rural region to support and showcase a level of young talent that often goes unappreciated in most public school systems.

Summer Honors Program This year alone almost 600 students applied to participate in SHP. Once nominated by a teacher they had to take a test or submit portfolios in hopes of getting accepted into an area of advanced study. The classes offered this year include Art, Computer Science, Creative Writing, Drama, Film Production, Entrepreneurship, Logic, Mathematical Connections, and Social Science. Medical Science is also offered and students selected into this particular program will spend their first week at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and then return to local hospitals for the remainder of the program. This year, SHP will be June 7-19.

Networking and traditions anchor the program

As with any endeavor spanning decades and influencing many people, networking and traditions are strongly rooted at SHP. An alumni association connects former attendees and the program has even relied upon its past participants to serve as instructors. This year four former students are returning to teach the next generation of gifted students.

Summer Honors Program SHP flourished for more than 26 years under the leadership of former Director of Gifted Education Tim Burke, but a new director took over the reins last year. Acting with the same dedication as her predecessor, Janelle Jack continues to offer a challenging program for the betterment of our gifted students.

During the two-week program based in Holdrege, students from thirteen school districts in southcentral and southwestern Nebraska congregate to learn advanced subject matter, to socialize with like-minded peers, and to immerse themselves in the community. Visiting students are housed with local residents and the public is encouraged to support the students and their work. Whether it’s the play performed by the Drama class, the items offered for sale by the Entrepreneurship students, or the downtown mural that is a continuing collaborative class effort, SHP students certainly leave their mark on the community.

However, it’s not solely their work that leaves an impression. It is their attitude that attributes to the overall energy of the program and that ultimately affects the community and beyond. The students have adopted a mantra from the YouTube phenomenon the VlogBrothers “Don’t forget to be awesome.”

And being awesome is what these students do best.

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Scott Rager

Robert Scott Rager is a writer, designer, entrepreneur and blogger living in south central Nebraska. You can read more of his work on his blog, County Seat Living (

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